Proper 16c, August 25, 2013

August 26, 2013

Another Teachable Moment
Luke 13:10-17

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

Educators speak of teachable moments as those moments in which a unique, high interest situation arises that lends itself to discussion of a particular topic. I think good teachers are always trying to find those special moments when their students might be the most open to understanding a new concept.

Just this week I heard a story about a high-school teacher in Queensbury, New York, who created a very teachable moment for his students and for a huge food corporation. Dan Anderson said his students were often struggling with math and he was looking for a way to make it interesting, so he had some of his students calculate the amount of white cream filling that exists in Oreo Double Stuf Cookies as compared to regular Oreo Cookies, and it turns out that they unearthed a scandal. The truth is that an Oreo Double Stuf Cookie only has 1.86 as much white cream filling as a regular Oreo Cookie.

Now this may be good news for people who can’t quit eating Double Stuf cookies. They aren’t quite getting twice as many calories /cookie, but this was not a headline the Nabisco Company wanted to see last week. Mr. Anderson not only succeeded in creating what must surely have been an opportunity for some students to gain some real understanding of how to calculate percentages and the value of such knowledge – he provided a very teachable moment for corporate America. If you are going to claim that something is twice as big you better do your math – because somebody will be doing it, and you don’t want to read about it in the Wall Street Journal or hear about it on NPR.

Teachable moments are great – and horrible. They are great if you are the teacher, and you see an opportunity to help your students grasp a new concept. They are horrible when you are the one who has come to discover that you only thought you knew what you were doing.

I remember very well one such teaching moment, and the lesson I extracted. I was in the process of moving and the last thing I needed to relocate was a mattress. I only had some lightweight twine on hand (ok it was kite string), but I remembered the image of the small Liliputians keeping Gulliver tied to the ground with many tiny ropes, and I decided to utilize that same concept. I had a small Chevrolet LUV pickup with a camper cover on the back, so I put that mattress on the top of the camper and I ran that kite string back and forth over the top of it many times.

It was about dusk and I was racing to get that mattress to somebody’s house before the predicted rain came. It actually started sprinkling as I got on to this freeway between Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, so I was moving at a pretty good pace when I heard the commotion on the roof and saw the mattress fly off in to the median.

It’s hard for me to own up to the fact that I was old enough to have known better than to attempt such a feat. I’m guessing that most 5th graders know not to tie a mattress to a roof with kite string, and I did too, but I thought I would overcome the weakness of the string with volume of string. And I still think it would have worked, but I realized the flaw of my design as soon as this small disaster unfolded. The wisdom of the Liliputians was to tie Gulliver down with many individual ropes. I had run my string back and forth many times, but it was one continuous line, and when it broke in one spot the entire tying system came unraveled.

That was a teachable moment for me, and I’m happy to say I haven’t left any mattresses in the median for the last 30 years. I wish I could say that was the dumbest thing I’ve done for the last few decades, but it probably isn’t. Unfortunately I continue to step in to situations where I come to understand something I probably should have already known, but I guess it’s a good thing to continue to learn powerful lessons.

I think what we have in this morning’s scripture is a snapshot of a teachable moment. The very first verse in this morning’s scripture says that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, and it occurs to me that when God prescribed for the people of Israel to have a Sabbath day, God wished to establish a regular teachable moment in the life the Jewish community. We generally think of the Sabbath day as a day of rest, but it also involved this tradition of coming together for learning. And I think we all do our best learning when we step back from what we are doing and take a good look at ourselves.

If you never stop you never contemplate how you might do things differently or dream of how things can be better. Asking large questions is an exercise that requires some leisure – some stepping out of the work mode. Of course good things almost always turn in to far different creatures than what they were established to be, and this seems to have been the case with the keeping of the Sabbath Day. It had become more of an institutional requirement than a day set apart for spiritual development. It had become so fiercely regulated it probably generated far more distress in people’s lives than it created the opportunity for reflection and rest.

Jesus was trying to teach, but he clearly needed something to happen to reorient the thinking of the people who were in charge of the synagogue and he found his opportunity in this poor woman who had been terribly crippled for eighteen years. Somehow Jesus was able to heal this woman – which was a great thing for her. She was clearly someone who’s life was difficult on a daily basis. This healing wasn’t prompted by her or anyone else which leads me to think he did it for the benefit of everyone who was on hand.

He didn’t just want to heal her ailing back – he wanted to heal the sickness of the community. And this was a sick community. They didn’t understand what God’s intentions really were. They thought God intended for them to keep traditional rules at the expense of human life and dignity. Jesus created a teachable moment, and I dare say the man who got upset about Jesus healing this woman came to feel as ridiculous as I did when that mattress flew off my truck. I’m guessing as soon as Jesus asked him whether he would untie a donkey and lead it to water on a Sabbath he knew he was on the wrong side of the truth.

We’re told that the crowd rejoiced at what Jesus had done and said. It was a teachable moment, and most people got it. And it is exciting when someone brings light to the truth.

I’m reminded that we are approaching the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington that was initiated by Dr. Martin Luther King and his companions. It took place on August 28, 1963. I was 5 at the time, so I don’t feel bad about not going, but I’m so happy Karl Hansen loaned me a recent issue of Time Magazine that provided an extensive review of the event. One of the writers remarked that that event provided a teachable moment for our nation. It was the largest gathering of demonstrators that has ever assembled in Washington. The organizers would have considered it a success if 35,000 had shown up for the event – 250,000 people actually did show up.

It was a powerful moment for our nation. It was an event that brought attention to the need for our nation to live up to the truths that our God expects and our constitution espouses. I wish I could have been there. I wish I could have felt the spirit of that body of people who were drawn together by the belief that we can be better than we are. The people who were on hand that day were blessed by the sharing of a dream that we will one day be better than we are.

That dream has not yet been fully realized, but justice has taken root in in our nation in some powerful new ways. I heard Congressman John Lewis say in an interview last week, that things are better than they were. Racism has been outlawed to a large extent. But it hasn’t been eradicated. Dr. King’s dream has not been fully realized.

We are still surrounded by injustice. Our marriage laws are unjust. Our healthcare system is unjust. Our immigration laws are unjust. Our voting laws are unjust. Our national economic system is unjust. Our justice system is unjust. Our United Methodist appointment system is unjust.

I think we could all make our lists of how far from justice we know various systems to be, and I think we all need to do what we can to provide teaching moments for those we believe to be the proponents of injustice. But I also think we need to be sensitive to those teaching moments that come to ourselves.

It’s important that we all continue to maintain the spirit of Sabbath in our lives and to provide ourselves with teachable moments. Our calling is not just to do the work we feel compelled to do, but to step back from our various agendas on a regular basis and to let God work on us. I think we are probably all bent over in some way, and it’s good to try to put ourselves in the presence of God’s healing touch on a regular basis. I like to think that’s what we are doing when we gather here for worship, but as we see in this morning’s text, a house of worship can harbor unholy traditions. I don’t believe that is the case here, but I can tell you it doesn’t escape my attention that it was the leader of the synagogue who needed a teaching moment.

I thank God for those powerful teaching moments that break in to our lives and provide us with deeper understanding of how well we are all loved by God and how we might share that love in ever-expanding ways.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


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